In a move that immediately became irresistible fodder for late night comics and editorial cartoonists, the Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature this summer approved a law that bars state agencies from considering scientific predictions of how much sea-level rise will impact the state’s coastline. Cue the references to King Canute and his infamous decree for the tides to halt. “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal,” Stephen Colbert joked. “Problem solved.”
The darkly hilarious episode could be considered just the latest evidence of the GOP’s determination to become the party of scientific know-nothings. A closer look, however, reveals a profit motive behind the head-in-the-sand law. The bill was pushed by a group called NC-20 that is made up of real estate agents and homebuilders in the state’s 20 coastal counties. Those folks, naturally, don’t like the idea that by the end of this century the Carolina coast could experience a predicted 39-inch rise in sea level. It would be bad for business. So they lobbied to outlaw such predictions. State Representative Pat McElraft was the primary sponsor of the bill. Her single biggest campaign contributor is the North Carolina Association of Realtors; number two is the North Carolina Home Builders Association.
In short: The state of North Carolina won’t use the best available science on sea-level rise because doing so might complicate the lives of real estate agents and developers.
The North Carolina farce is one outlandish example of how wealthy interests use their economic clout to undermine the public’s interest in having sane environmental laws. As Annie Leonard writes in an introduction to our special report on campaign finance corruption, the money flooding our political system is a “persistent pollutant” that “threatens our health, safety, and way of life.”
Corporations’ disproportionate influence over the US political system is hardly news to most readers of this magazine. Sharon Kelly, writing about the oil and gas industry’s heavy political spending, notes that big businesses have been “a political juggernaut since the days of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.” But in our new Gilded Age the situation is worsening. The Supreme Court’s execrable Citizens United decision has opened the way for corporations and the rich to spend unlimited amounts of undisclosed money to influence elections. And they are busy doing so. Exhibit A is David and Charles Koch, the petrochemical barons who are committed to spending whatever it takes to ensure that their allies in the GOP take the White House and the Senate and maintain control of the House of Representatives.
The challenge to environmentalists is clear. We have to find ways to communicate to Americans that unchecked corporate power poses a clear and present danger to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the wild places we care about, and health of the atmosphere we all depend on. Make no mistake: We will have little chance of protecting the planet – or safeguarding our own place on it – until we accomplish the hard work of restoring balance to our political ecosystem.
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